Traditionally, things one can cancel include television shows, magazine subscriptions, medical appointments, plans with friends, orders, and dates. If you check Google trends for searches for cancel, they spike at the beginning of last March, when people were starting to check if events were canceled because of COVID-19. But you might wonder at first if there was some sort of early-March scandal you’d forgotten, because over the past few years we have also added “people” to this list.
The current use of cancel is a Trump-era coinage, or at least a Trump-era concern, even though slangy, charged uses of it predate him. But on its account, hands have been wrung and think pieces published since at least 2017. In 2018, Kanye West tweeted “no more cancel culture,” by which point the term already felt old. Yet it soldiers on, uncancelable.
This may be in part because nobody really knows what cancel means. Its meaning is rounded up or down to suit the user’s purpose: It’s a life-ruining event or it’s inconsequential pushback; it’s groupthink or it’s merely strongly voiced disagreement. People who cancel are fond of equating language they dislike with violence, but the canceled are equally likely to talk of being burned at the stake, lynched, or sent to the gulag. Cancellation can mean losing your job, getting dropped by your publisher, losing your friends, or being disliked by strangers. And the reasons for cancellation can vary from racist abuse, to domestic violence, to losing your temper in public, to things you might have done or said years ago.
Cancel’s murkiness has made it a very useful word for pushing already contentious or delicate matters into the realm of total confusion. Jessica Krug, an academic who had pretended for over a decade to be black, confessed her deception in a blog post on Medium earlier this year in which she wrote,
I should absolutely be cancelled. No. I don’t write in passive voice, ever, because I believe we must name power. So. You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.
What does that mean?
I don’t know.
One is tempted to say that calling for a form of punishment nobody can really define, including yourself, is about the same as saying you shouldn’t be punished at all. In any case, Krug’s blog post is a kind of master document of online culture in 2020 in its combination of self-flagellating condemnation with a distinct lack of specificity about what Krug actually did, much less what she might do to put the situation right. Less important to it than questions of justice or restitution are questions of whether Krug is now or has ever been a good person.
But if cancel is not easily defined, it can be described. At its most basic, cancellation occurs when you are called out for presumed moral or ideological reasons, and you parry with some form of passive aggression. If you ignore your critics, or respond in some other way, the dynamic cannot be completed. Usually, cancellation follows this pattern: Person X has a misdeed in his or her past or holds a controversial opinion. Person Z, for reasons of his or her own, brings this action or opinion into wider circulation. X can react in a variety of ways, from over-the-top apology to an over-the-top pantomime of being harmed. After this, anything can happen. X may emerge vindicated and even on top. X may also be fired or suffer other professional consequences. Whatever happens to X, Z’s own fate might not be so rosy; Z may even be the subject of a backlash cancellation.